Alec d'Urberville: Character in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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      Alec d’Urberville is the villain in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He is the evil genius of Tess Durbeyfield and through her that of Angel Clare. He is to Tess what Satan is to Eve in the garden of Eden. He becomes the author of her tragedy. He is the stage-villain of melodrama. This scoundrel seeks to take some mean advantage of the heroine of the novel in her distress. He is a penny plain and two pence coloured scoundrel of the piece. He is an embodiment of measureless grossness, for he puts us in the mind of Shakespeare’s Caliban in his sensuality and animality. Perhaps he is an instrument in the hands of evil fate. He sins and the wages of his sin is death. He embodies Hardy’s ideas and feelings regarding the idle rich people of his times. He is the sole heir to his parent’s property.

      Alec is introduced to us for the first time when Tess is leaving her home for Trantridge. He drives the cart and Hardy giving the following description of him: “The driver was a young man of three or four or twenty with a cigar between his teeth wearing a dandy cap, drab jacket breaches of the same hue, white neckcloth, stick-up collar and brown drawing gloves. In short, he was handsome young buck who had visited Joan a week or two before he got an answer about Tess.”

      Alec d’Urberville is a young romantic well-to-do man of Trantridge. He does not really belong the d’Urberville but his father who earned a huge wealth and settled down in the South of England assumed the name of d’Urbervilles. He is the sole heir to large estate of his dead father. He is most irresponsible and has no care either for the affairs of the family or the invalid mother. H.C. Duffin classifying the characters of Hardy into four types describes Alec d’Urbervilles as “On the lowest level there seem to be only two persons whose lives are mainly motivated by the instinct for animal gratification—Troy (Far from the Madding Crowd) and Alec d’Urbervilles. Neither is unredeemed. Both being capable of some degree of generous emotion.”

Alec Personality

      This squire of Trantridge is a young man of twenty-three or four years. He is a reckless youth and an irresponsible son. This absurd character is further deprived by too much money and leisure. His mother does not love him nor does she like his conduct. He is introduced to us as a spoilt young man living but to satisfy his sensual desires and animal instincts. Indeed he is of the earth earthy. He is a man of dark complexion. He is badly mouthed with full lips. He has a black mustache which he twists before Tess. There is a touch of barbarism in his contours, but his face and eyes are forceful. He appears to be a typical coxcomb given to sensual pleasures.

      Alec is a twenty-three or twenty-four years old man. He is tall and young with a swarthy complexion. He has badly molded big, full-lips though they are smooth and red. He keeps a well-groomed black mustache with curled points. His barbarism is revealed from the kind of appearance he has. The only appeal he has is mainly sensuousness.

      In the words of the author, “Despite the touches of barbarism in his contours there was a singular force in the gentleman’s face, and in his bold rolling eye.”

A Great Villain

      Alexander d’Urberville is a great villain. He comes before us as a killer or snarer of young ladies. He has had many affairs with the village girls such as Car and others. He says that he is a damned bad fellow who is born bad. He lives badly and will die badly. He says that he is the greatest of sinners. He knows well how he has made Tess’ innocent life foul. Thus his life is a record of gross sins and evil acts. His sins arc related but to his relations with women. He shows no moral scruples. He follows no code of morality. He is not sincere in his love for Tess, for he does not propose to her. He does not believe in God. He shows the seeds of canker for the whole life of poor Tess. Like every other great villain, he is very shrewd and tactful in the execution of black designs and plans on Tess. It is but a matter of expediency that he does not pounce upon Tess for the first time when he finds her in his own garden. He is shrewd enough to exploit her love for the family. He tries to oblige her by helping them with money. He is clever and bold enough for his succeed with women. Whether inside the house, or at the farm, in the coach or on the horseback he persistently tries to woo unwilling and scornful Tess who tells him many times that she does not love him at all. He uses his cruel persuasion and tempts her when Angel Clare deserts her. He knows that he will become her master in due course. When Tess strikes his face with her leather glove, he is clever enough to forgive her for it. He is clever enough to touch the weakest spot in her soul. He exploits her love for her brothers and sisters. He offers to bring them up like the gentle man’s offspring. He promises to marry her. At last, the pendulum of circumstances swings in his favor, and villain wins the game.

      The tragedy of Tess could not have been brought out without the villainy of Alee d’Urberville. The level of villainy which is maintained by Alec is to be found no where in Hardy’s other novels. The villains in Hardy’s novels take various forms, either they come in single person or in a group of men. In the absence of a villain, Fate is made to act as a villain. However, in Tess, Fate is not required to act as a villain because of the presence of Alec to obstruct the path of truth and to corrupt the innocence and sincerity of the poor girls of the village.

Alec Religious Views

      Alec d’Urberville scoffs at morality and religion. He laughs at the virtuous ways of life. He does not believe that there is any Divine Power. When his blind mother dies, he comes under the influence of the old parson of Emminster. The result is that he becomes a convert. This conversion may also be described as a forced compromise with his hopeless circumstances. This conversion of Alec d’Urberville from a lecher to a preacher is psychological surprise. It is only skin-deep. When he comes under the charm of Tess again, he throws off his religious garb and comes out into his true colours. Tess anticipates it. She says that it cannot be a permanent thing. She tells Alec frankly that he has had his fill in the enjoyment of worldly pleasures and now he wants to make his heavenly life happy. That is the common way of the selfish rich. At the first sight of Tess’s enchanting personality, he becomes a backslider and relapses into his old passion for her. There is little nobility in this passion. When he is converted into a methodist or evangelical preacher, he stands only on the level of animalism. His passion for Tess is little more than lust so it is quite different from the spiritual love of Angel Clare for her. His mind always dwells on a low level of thought and feeling. He makes Tess swerve from the righteous path with specious lies and cruel persuasion. Thus Alec’s conversion is a psychological surprise. This broad or searching piece of psychology is a fine but not subtle stroke.

Alec Redeeming Qualities

      Alec d’Urberville is not an absolute villain, for he has got some redeeming features of his character. Like all other villains of Hardy, he is not without his redeeming qualities. This is so, for Hardy is incapable of creating odious people. Odiousness implies meanness. Mean people are so absorbed in the gratification of their desires that they neither feel deeply nor are aware of the large issues of their life. Thomas Hardy is able to draw only those people whose nature is of sufficient fine quality to make them realize the greatness of their life’s issues. Hardy cannot get into the hearts of odious people, so he is a dreadful failure if he tries to draw these odious people. That is why we cannot and do not expect Alec d’Urberville to be a perfect villain. It is true that we cannot say with any measure of certainty that he feels the biting of his conscience. We are not sure if he is really ashamed of his past sins and misdoings. It is not certain that he is helping Tess with genuine sympathy and love for her. Perhaps he is himself but a creature in the hands of fate. But there is the fact of his murder which is a small tragedy within the vast tragedy of Tess Durbeyfield. The wages of sin is death and he has to die for his sinful crimes. He settles his accounts with this punishment, so he deserves no further condemnation. Moreover, we detect some redeeming qualities in his moral make up. This villain redeems himself by virtue of his abiding passion for Tess. He sticks to her till he dies at the hands of his own object of love. He promises never to be bad towards her in future. He loves her for her intrinsic purity. He offers monetary help and promises to her. He is generous to her family for the sake of her love. He dashes his heart against the firm rock of adamant Tess. He deserves pity for this thing. This very passion can become noble in the case of any other man. His fault is that he is too late in his offer of marriage.

Attraction Towards Tess

      When he meets Tess first, he is attracted by her and his eyes are rivetted by a “luxuriance of aspect, a fullness of growth, which makes her appear more of a woman than she really is.” He cleverly finds out her helpless circumstances and then exploits them to his full advantage. Being interested in this comely girl with a well-developed body he promises to help her distressed family. Hardy tells us that Tess has met the wrong man and says: “In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things, the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving.”

His Sensual Nature

      Alec is a sensuous person and he aims at a sensuous gratification in life. He is alien to goodness. The only one thing that he knows is how to gratify his senses. After all the show of penitence and religious preaching, he retains his sensual nature. He looks upon Tess as nothing except an object for the gratification of his senses.

      He tries to take advantage of Tess during their journey towards Trantridge riding the dog-cart with utmost speed. The description of the journey given by Hardy explains his villainous and sensuous nature. “Downtown they sped the wheels humming like a top, the dog-cart rocking right and left its axis acquiring a slightly oblique set in relation to the line of progress. The figure of the horse rising and falling in undulations before them. Sometimes the wheel was off the ground, it seemed for many yards. Sometimes a stone was sent spinning over the hedge and flinty sparks from the horses’s hoof outshone the daylight”. During the journey, he takes the liberty of kissing Tess. Thus his association with Tess brings to light his character as a debauch who wants to enjoy everything. He is notorious in the neighborhood and any girl who is seen in his company once is sure to be a suspect forever afterward.

His Seduction of Tess

      Alec is a malicious man full of evil designs. He has played with the lives of so many innocent girls. His only aim in appointing Tess to supervise the poultry farm at Trantridge is to captivate her and succeed in seducing her. While returning to Trantridge, Tess finds no company and accepts Alec’s offer to join her, during the journey in the forest, Tess falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Alec commits rape and Tess loses her chastity. Hardy contemptuously describes the character of Alec by saying, “Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man, the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order”. One may, indeed admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in present catastrophe. Doubtless, some of Tess d’Urberville’s ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure.


      It is not only towards Tess that Alec behaves like a reckless gallant. He can rightly be described as a confirmed rogue. Hardy says, “His reputation as a reckless gallant and heart-breaker was beginning to spread beyond the immediate boundaries of Trandridge.” He does not feel any responsibility or guilt in having done wrong to Tess. He is unable to feel the pain and suffering that he caused to the sensitive spirit. He feels that he can justify his wrong against Tess by paying her to the uttermost farthing. He tells her, “You know you need not work in the fields or the dairies again. You know you may clothe yourself with the best, instead of the bold plain way you have lately affected as if you couldn’t get a ribbon more than you earn.” This shows the limits of his meanness and recklessness.

His Insult of Mr. Clare (the Parson)

      Mr. Clare, the holy man tries to reform Alec who is guilty of the “most culpable passions”. He tries to bring to the notice of the public the resentful behavior of the young man by making him the subject of the sermon in the church. Alec flays this attack and rudely insults the parson establishing himself as a rogue in the eyes of the reader.

His Temporary Transformation

      After the departure of Tess, Alec falls completely to the demands of sex. Seeing his condition, the great vicar of Emminster tries to save him but is rebuffed. However, the death of his mother brings in him a kind, of tender feeling and the world appears to him as gloomy and futile. Thus, he changes his garb and converts. But this is a temporary phase as the sight of Tess once again arouses in him the sex which has been lulled to sleep. He exchanged religious thoughts with her to which she does not agree. Getting an excuse to discard his saintly life he once again accepts his. twid-suit. Now he is all the more determined to win Tess back. His passion for Tess is a little more than lust, so it is quite different from the spiritual love of Angel Clare. His mind always dwells on a low level of thought or feeling. He makes Tess swerve from the righteous path with specious lies and cruel persuasion.

Alec’s Only Goodness

      The only good thing that one can bring out in the character of Alec is that after his conversion he does not wish to continue with his illicit relation but wishes to marry her. He wants both Tess and himself to get united and live respectfully. But his character is so much overshadowed by his villainy that the one good thing about him gets covered and is not brought to the notice of the reader broadly.

His End

      Alec’s passion for Tess is so strong that he unscrupulously continues his pursuit of her. In spite of knowing that she is married to another man, he loves her for her intrinsic purity. He offers monetary help and promised her, never to be bad towards her in future. It is only for the sake of her love that he is generous to her family. In fact, he sticks to her till he dies at the hands of his own object of love. To conclude with the words of Punch who in 1892 reviewing Tess declared, “The only the absurdly melodramatic character of Alec...It is a great pity that such a penny-plain-and-two pence-coloured scoundrel should have been allowed so strong a part...Even the very very strong ejaculations where in the bold bad man indulges on the slightest provocation belong to the most antiquated vocabulary of theatrical suffragism—However, there he is, and all the perfumes of the vale of black-moor, will not suffice for dispelling the strong odor of the footlights. Where this unconscionable scoundrel makes his appearance.”


      Alec d’Urberville is to linger long in our memory as a villain of Tess’s tragedy. He belongs to the world of Fitzpiers, Wildeve and Troy. He is not painted entirely black. While drawing his picture Thomas Hardy seems to have mixed a lighter hue in it. We remember him as a man who is responsible for the tragedy of the heroine’s life. Indeed his evil runs like the central streak or ray in the fabric of sad and tragic tale. In the end, we close the novel thinking that it is Angel Clare and not Alec d’Urberville who is the real poison in Tess’s life.

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